Tue 12 Feb 2013
A few months ago, Ellie reviewed a picture book I love called Zayde Comes to Live (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).
So I was thrilled when this beautiful book won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Young Readers category.
And I was even more thrilled when I learned that I was going to be part of the blog tour featuring Sydney Taylor award winners and their books.
So today, please help me welcome author Sheri Sinykin. She was kind enough to provide very thoughtful answers to my questions about how she came to write her award-winning book.
Zayde Comes to Live was your first picture book. What inspired you to write for that audience?
The inspiration for Zayde Comes to Live came from several strands. When braided together, they suggested a story for a much younger audience than the middle school children I have written for ever since 1990, when my first novel, Shrimpboat and Gym Bags (Atheneum), was published.
My mother’s diagnosis of Stage 4B endometrial cancer in 1997 sparked a lot of fear and anxiety in me, along with a devastating period of writer’s block. As part of my healing journey, I became a hospice volunteer, hoping to conquer a fear of death as well as to “pay it forward” for someone else’s parent in case I was unable to “be there” for my mother. At the time, we lived two thousand miles apart. Mom challenged me to deal with the writers’ block by earning an MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College.
My first semester mentor, Louise Hawes, urged me to write about what terrified me — which, of course, was my mother’s death. Giving Up the Ghost (2007, Peachtree), a suspense novel for readers ages 10-14, grew out of addressing that fear head on.
I might not have written Zayde Comes to Live at all, save for a hospice rabbi’s casual comments at a brunch over eight years ago. He shared his experience that Jewish hospice patients have a harder time accepting death than other patients because few know what our religion believes about death and the afterlife. He said it’s as if we Jews are more focused on mitzvah, on doing good deeds in the Here-and-Now, rather than on the promise of a Hereafter. I wondered if Jewish hospice patients’ anxiety — like my own — might be reduced if they had learned as children about death and Olam Ha-Ba. I also pondered whether this knowledge might give Jewish children and their friends of other faiths a sense of mutual respect, comfort, and healing about where their loved ones will “go” — even if they believe different things.
And so, in writing Zayde Comes to Live, I set out to tell a compelling story that would give Jewish children a specific belief system, while at the same time providing hope to all children that a loved one’s spirit will live on through love and memories. The hospice philosophy that people are not dying, but rather living until the moment they die, provides a backdrop and an impetus for making every moment of life count. It also suggested my title, which can be understood on several levels.
How was writing to a picture book format different than your previous middle grade work?
Even though I had tried to write successful picture books since the 1980s, I came to realize that my natural voice and interests were more attuned to older readers. Publishing eighteen novels and short chapter books (I wrote eight books as the lead author of The Magic Attic Club series in the mid-90s) suggested that I concentrate my efforts there. In writing Zayde Comes to Live, I needed to filter the story through the heart, mind, and words of a much younger character. My greatest challenge was to avoid being didactic and to let Rachel’s character propel the action. As a novelist, I was conscious of the need to “write spare and young” with honesty and grace. Despite the tender age of this audience, I felt it of utmost importance to be candid about the inevitability of the circle of life, as well as to be reassuring about death, a subject many adults dread introducing, let alone discussing.
This seems like a picture book that could transcend ages from small children to adults. How have you seen that happen?
I have made a conscious decision not to read Zayde Comes to Live to an audience of children, but rather to parents, educators, and other professionals who know and love specific children in a would-be audience. I am sensitive to the fact that young children may be at different stages, developmentally, and that they may be highly emotional or reactive, sick themselves, facing the death of a loved one or even grieving a recent loss. I don’t think it is my place as an author to presume they are ready — as a group — to receive what this book offers. In fact, I did not read Zayde to two of my own grandchildren until their “Papa Ron” died unexpectedly in his sleep last fall.
Toward this end, I have created for those caring adults a PowerPoint presentation titled “GOOD GRIEF: How to Talk to A Child about Death.” It is part book talk about Zayde, part education seminar, and lastly, a reading of my picture book. The education component is based on research for my MFA critical thesis on “how to make books about death and bereavement authentic for young readers;” on my hospice training and volunteer work; and on my life experience, including taking care of my mother at the end of her life, grief therapy, and, gratefully, recovery following the deaths of my parents in 2006 and 2008.
Unusual family dynamics at the time precipitated “borderline post-traumatic stress and complicated grief” just when I was struggling to complete Giving Up the Ghost revisions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A child play therapist — specializing in grief and also treating adults — not only helped me heal, but in the process, deepened the backstory of Davia, the novel’s main character, and brought greater resonance to its theme of forgiveness. In part because of that evolution, I’ve come to believe that “no book is published before its right time.” That is also evidenced by Zayde’s long journey from contract to print while my publisher searched for — and found! — the perfect illustrator in Kristina Swarner.
I am not, nor do I claim to be, a social worker or therapist. But I have come to feel a calling to help adults reframe the subject of death and to learn how to initiate a conversation with children at the “right time” for each particular child. It is not unusual for members of my adult audiences to weep openly and without shame during the reading of Zayde Comes to Live at the end of my presentation, as well as to share aloud their own experiences with the loss of a loved one. That energy is as uplifting and healing for me as it seems to be for them. For that, I am grateful. It is an unanticipated gift I’ve received from Zayde’s publication and my decision to share the book in this way.
How did your mother’s death and your work as a hospice volunteer shape this story and your previous novel, Giving Up the Ghost?
As noted earlier, Zayde Comes to Live was inspired by my mother’s life — the way she lived each day as fully as possible for eight-and-a-half years after her diagnosis — more than by her death itself. It was her habit to prominently display a cartoon of a pelican trying to swallow a frog; the frog’s legs were wrapped around the pelican’s neck in an attempt to strangle him. The cartoon was boldly titled, “Never give up!” And she didn’t. Each time we feared the end was near, she rallied, attending all three sons’ college graduations, two sons’ weddings (even singing in one ceremony!), one son’s MBA graduation, and my own Vermont College MFA graduation in the dead of winter.
The influence of my hospice training feeds Zayde Comes to Live like a stream feeds a lake. Inseparable from the story, it runs beneath the surface, infusing it with life. The character of Zayde himself was inspired by one of my hospice patients who I followed for close to a year. He had congestive heart failure and lived his days attached to an oxygen tank in a recliner in the living room. His life was reduced to what he could see out the window, on TV, and around him. I imagined how Zayde’s shrinking world would look to a young granddaughter who knows intuitively that his time with her is winding down. This imagining was made vivid by a hospice training exercise where volunteer-trainees created index cards on which we wrote all the things that made our lives meaningful and joyful. The trainer then described our changing circumstances “in hospice,” and one by one, we removed cards listing things we could no longer do. Soon our world became small, indeed. But the flip side of this exercise was imagining things we could do as volunteers to still bring joy into that patient’s life.
Though Zayde revolves around worries over Rachel’s grandfather’s “last breath,” I was grateful that this book could wait to go to press until the “first breath” of our newest Sinykin. As a result, I was able to dedicate Zayde Comes to Live to all five grandsons — Brayden, Logan, Akiva, Elon and Hillel.
Giving Up the Ghost was dedicated to my mother and published a year after her death, but she was aware before then of Peachtree’s intention to publish both books she had inspired. Though the story is fiction, the setting of the haunted Louisiana plantation — created from a composite of places Mom and I had visited — and many of Davia’s memories of her mother’s battle with cancer were stitched together like a patchwork quilt from my own memories of Mom’s challenges. Davia’s fears that her mother’s cancer might recur were my own fears. Mrs. Peters listened to the soothing affirmation tapes that I helped record for Mom, so she could hear them before and during her surgeries.
My hospice volunteer experience is evidenced in what Davia learns first-hand from the Louisiana hospice staff that helps her family care for their eccentric Great Aunt Mari, who is not only nearing the end of her life, but also battling ghosts on many levels. Because death is the biggest mystery of life, I wanted middle school readers to have their curiosity and questions about it answered sensitively but also truthfully, rather than glossed over, portrayed “off screen” or told in euphemisms. I’ve learned that, in the same way expectant mothers’ childbirth fears can be reduced or allayed by accurate information, so too can anyone’s fears about death.
While I was writing much of the novel’s first draft, I was also taking care of my mother in California, rising two hours earlier than she did so I could capture the story before we started our day. That helped infuse Giving Up the Ghost with more immediacy than had I been writing from imagination and memory alone.
Has the reaction to the book been what you expected?
I had hopes and dreams for how Zayde Comes to Live might be received, of course. But, honestly, over the twenty-something years I’ve been publishing, I have learned to let go of “expectations” as much as possible. An author releases a book-baby into the world like a child, knowing it must find its own way. But in my experience, the more I’ve “attached to results,” the less joy I’ve attracted into my life.
In that sense, the reaction to Zayde Comes to Live has surpassed even my wildest dreams! Winning both a Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award as well as a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award validates my publisher’s and my intention that Kristina Swarner’s and my picture book would reach not only a Jewish audience, but a wider, multi-cultural audience as well. My dearest wish is that Zayde will bring reassurance, peace, and completeness — shalom! — to children just discovering the circle of life they’ve heard sung about in the popular animated movie.
What are you working on now?
In terms of new projects, I’d be grateful to find a publishing home for Saving Adam, a historical novel set in 1963. Shelley Lewis’s Jewish family in Sacramento would be “perfect” if not for a troubled eight-year-old brother for whom she feels supremely responsible. Set against the backdrop of the growing civil rights movement, Saving Adam served as my creative thesis and is interspersed with Shelley’s poetry and the pain of a searing event from my childhood.
Thank you, Sheri! And congratulations again on being a Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner.
If you’d like to learn more about Sheri, her website includes reviews, grief handouts, a teacher’s guide for Giving Up the Ghost, and a downloadable brochure with contact details and information about her author presentations.
And, you can learn more about Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Zayde Comes to Live, in her interview at The Book of Life.